February 2018 has come to end – but do not fear, for our friends at Action for Happiness have issued another Positive Psychology-infused calendar. It´s time for Mindful March. You can get your printable high-resolution version here.
February 2018 has come to end – but do not fear, for our friends at Action for Happiness have issued another Positive Psychology-infused calendar. It´s time for Mindful March. You can get your printable high-resolution version here.
The community of positive psychology researchers has yet to agree on a generally accepted definition of positive interventions. While there are several definitions available that display a considerable overlap, there is still a lot of space for conceptual clarification (Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013). I posit the following definition:
A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations.
I will explicate the elements of positive interventions in the order they appear in the aforementioned definition.
The term “positive” in positive interventions defines the contextual and methodical framework that positive psychology operates on. On the contextual level, the target group of positive interventions are “normal people”, meaning humans from a non-clinical population (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). This represents a crucial difference to most therapeutic interventions that are designed to improve the condition of people suffering from a psychological disorder such as a depressive episode (Gable & Haidt, 2005). At the same time is has to be noticed that, in spite of this, there are studies that investigate the effectiveness of positive interventions for clinical populations (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005). On the methodological level, positive interventions try to utilize positive phenomena of human cognition and emotion, such as pleasant feelings and memories, mindfulness, or the intentional use of character strengths and virtues (Peterson, 2006). Once again, this can be contrasted to interventions in clinical psychology, where “non-positive” methods such as the prescription of anti-depressants are custom. It is important to note that positive interventions (and positive psychology in general) do not prescribe a specific positive finite or ideal state of being. Rather, they can be characterized by a spirit that embraces constructive meliorism (Pawelski, 2005), the belief that humans can improve their condition no matter what. As such, positive psychology seeks to help people to reach their full potential, their individual best-possible life.
Positive interventions are based on sound scientific research, ideally double-blind experiments using adequate control groups, as well as longitudinal evaluation studies (Seligman, 2002; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). This represents an important modification compared to adjacent disciplines, such as humanistic psychology. While both disciplines share a lot of common ground pertaining their phenomena of interest, values, and goals, humanistic psychologists tend(ed) to be somewhat dismissive of large-scale empirical research (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). It is not unreasonable to say that methods akin to positive interventions were by and large confined to the large body of self-help literature up to the onset of the third century. Through positive psychology, they have finally entered the academic discourse for good.
Positive interventions seek to foster human agency, autonomy, and self-efficacy (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). The “active ingredient” of each intervention should reside within the individual, not in some external sphere. Therefore, a certain level of willpower, self-regulation and effort are needed for carrying out a positive intervention (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2014). This postulate can once again be contrasted to the prescription of anti-depressants, where the desired effect is created by something that is external to the individual and cannot be influenced directly. This is a crucial aspect since many researchers try to find ways to deliver positive intervention in a “self-help” style, e.g., as an online assignment (Ouweneel, Le Blanc, & Schaufeli, 2013). Hence, it is paramount that positive interventions are relatively easy to carry out and rely on whatever resources an individual already disposes of before learning how to perform the intervention.
This aspect once again alludes to the contextual domain of positive psychology. Interventions in clinical psychology are designed to help people reach a neutral (non-clinical) condition when they are perceived to be displaying a psychopathology. In short: their task is to relieve suffering (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). In a simple mathematical analogy, their aim is to get people from some negative number to (around) zero. On the contrary, positive interventions are meant to increase human well-being in the positive direction, away from zero. Yet, while this mathematical analogy is easy to grasp, it is also misleading to a certain extent. There is reason to believe that positive states (mental health, flourishing) and negative states (mental illness, suffering) are somewhat independent spheres of the human condition. It is not uncommon to experience elements of flourishing even when severely ill; and at the same time, it is also possible to display a lack of subjective well-being in spite of the absence of any psychopathology (Westerhof & Keyes, 2010). Therefore, when drawing on mathematical analogies, at the end of the day in may be more appropriate to assign a point in a Cartesian system to each person, rather than a point on a standalone continuum.
Finally, positive interventions promote dimensions of human well-being, be it the psychological well-being model proposed by Ryff and Keyes (1995), Diener´s (2000) subjective well-being construct, or Seligman´s (2011) PERMA framework (or, for that matter, any adjacent concept). As such, the possible desired outcomes of positive interventions are manifold. They include positive emotions and cognitions such as happiness, satisfaction with life, autonomy and relatedness, experiences that foster engagement, e.g., the discovery and use of one´s character strengths, boosting the quality of one´s relationships, finding meaning and purpose in life, or higher levels of achievement. In addition, physical well-being should explicitly be included, since regular physical exercise is a viable approach to achieve psychological well-being as well (Fox, 1999).
While researchers in positive psychology have early on developed and empirically tested positive interventions (Seligman et al., 2005), the question of why and how these interventions actually work has only recently entered the academic discourse (Schueller, 2010). A current article by Lyubomirsky and Layous (2014) presents a preliminary model with regard to this question: The authors posit that encouraging people to complete positive interventions leads them to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors, which in turn results in increased well-being and improvement in life domains such as work, relationships, and health. While there seems to be a lot of truth to this explanation, it remains somewhat generic.
In this section of the article, I will therefore explicate my own outline of the mechanics behind positive interventions. This includes thinking about the underlying mechanisms as well as reporting some empirical findings on the question in what contexts and for which target groups they work best. To start, I´d like to repeat the definition of positive interventions given in the previous section: A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (a behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations. The most important part of this definition for the upcoming section is: “intentional act”. These words represent two of the general principles that underlie the functioning of all positive interventions: a) focusing our attention on a specific positive matter of interest; and b) getting us to actively change our behavior along the line of self-defined goals.
The importance of the first component – focusing our attention – was already proposed by the “father of American psychology”, William James (1890/1923, p. 424): “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will […] (1890/1923, p. 424). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that intentionally focusing our attention on the good things in life will result in an increased level of positive emotion. This relationship holds true for several variations of meditation practice, such as mindfulness-based meditation (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and loving-kindness meditation (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).
The beneficial effect of the second component – taking deliberate action – is equally backed by extant research. There is abundant evidence for the proposition that building one´s feeling of agency and being in control is accompanied by feelings of autonomy, which over time leads to an increase in well-being (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). Implicitly embedded in the notion of carrying out an intentional act is the connotation that there has to be some kind of goal that one strives to attain. Goal-setting theory (Locke, 1996) posits that having clear and attainable goals, and receiving goal-related feedback frequently, raises the likelihood of actually reaching our goals – which in turn leads to higher levels of self-efficacy (Maddux, 2009) – which then raises the likelihood of achieving one´s goals in the future. And attaining one´s personal goals, at the end of the day, yields a sense of accomplishment, purpose, and meaning in life (Brunstein, 1993; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Emmons, 2003).
In summary, the mechanics that underlie the efficacy of positive interventions can be integrated as follows: completing positive interventions leads humans to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors via focusing their attention on the good things in life, enabling them to attain meaningful goals, thereby strengthening their feeling of agency and self-efficacy, which nurtures their sense of achievement and purpose in life.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.
Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 1061-1070.
Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.
Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.
Emmons, R. A., (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the well-lived life (pp. 105-128). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Fox, K. R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 2(3a), 411-418.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.
Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103-110.
James, W. (1890/1923). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness. In J. Gruber & J. Moscowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473-495). New York: Oxford University Press.
Maddux, J. E. (2009). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 335-343). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ouweneel, E., Le Blanc, P. M., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). Do-it-yourself: An online positive psychology intervention to promote positive emotions, self-efficacy, and engagement at work. Career Development International, 18(2), 173-195.
Parks, A. C., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2013). Positive interventions: Past, present and future. In T. Kashdan, & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 140-165). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Pawelski, J. O. (2005). Mitigation and construction: Toward a balanced meliorism. Unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170.
Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719-727.
Schueller, S. M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 192-203.
Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 482-497.
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487.
Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. (2010). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), 110-119.
Foto credit: https://unsplash.com/@laurenpengg96
I´m a big fan of the non-profit Action for Happiness and have written on their work multiple times in the past. Today, I´d like to share with you another of their awesome tools, helping to bring Positive Psychology to the general public. Enjoy!
My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent Topics from (roughly) the last seven days.
Inc: How to Gain Strength From Your Darkest Moments (Interview with Adam Grant) by Leigh Buchanan
Inc: Pay Attention to These Surprising 6 Red Flags to Burnout. You May Be Closer Than You Think by Laura Garnett
Psychology Today: The Problem with Measuring Happiness by Todd Kashdan
Atlantic: Why Do Americans Smile So Much by Olga Khazan
The Age: Debate on future of work needs a Focus by Alex Lavelle
Atlantic: Play Power: How to Turn Around Our Creativity Crisis by Laura Sergeant Richardson
New York Magazine: Thinking of Your Job As a Calling Isn’t Always a Good Thing by Cari Romm
New York Magazine: To Get Better at Reading People’s Feelings, Pay Attention to Your Own Body by Cari Romm
Heleo: See More, Judge Less: A Mindful Approach to Success, no author
My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent Topics from (roughly) the last seven days.
Thrive Global: The Father Of Mindfulness on What Mindfulness Has Become by Drake Baer
CNN: Want to be happy and successful? Try Compassion by Jen Christensen
ScienceAlert: There’s now a brain scan to tell if you’re depressed – and what treatment is needed by Cynthia Fu
Fast Company: The Power of Pride at Facebook by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington & Adam Grant
Psychology Today: How I Learned About the Perils of Grit by Todd Kashdan
Atlantic: Can a Difficult Childhood Enhance Cognition? by Olga Khazan
New York Times: Rude Doctors, Rude Nurses, Rude Patients by Perri Klass
New York Magazine: The Original Natural Remedy for Burnout: Nature by Brad Stulberg
Time: The Lifelong Problem With Loneliness by Elizabeth Tillinghast
Huffington Post: How to Avoid Being a Fake Positive Leader by Chris White
Mankind is a smart bunch. We´ve learned how to put a man on the moon, how to build skyscrapers as high as mountains, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world via small devices in our pockets made of plastic, metal, and some microchips. We can travel back and forth between the continents in a matter of hours. We´ve developed sophisticated treatments for all kinds of human ailments, helping us to become as old as some of the trees. That´s impressive and utterly admirable.
Yet, all these upsides of modern life seem to take a toll on our bodies and minds. In most Western societies, the level of obese people is growing steadily, as is the pervasiveness of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety-related conditions. Is this the price society has to pay for the comforts of the modern life? And more importantly:
Here´s the thing: I´m sure, on the whole, we´re a lot smarter than our Neanderthalian ancestors. But being smart does not automatically lead to making smarter decisions. Let´s look at their way of life for a moment. Born in 1978, I´m not a contemporary witness – yet I´m an avid reader and watch a lot of documentaries. Here´s how I imagine life must have been for them:
Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…
Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:
Put in simple terms, I think this is what our bodies are trying to tell us:
Hey man, you’re doing this wrong. You’re spending your time doing the wrong things, and I don’t feel safe and sound in these places you’re taking me. And where are the familiar faces that I love? But hey, I can’t explain this to you in a straight way, I don’t have words. That’s why I make you feel anxious and miserable. This is my wake-up call.
Let me close by saying that I don’t argue we should all return to an aboriginal lifestyle. I’m a city-boy all the way through. I like my work at the office, I love going out for dinner, and having a grocery store and a hospital in close proximity. But I also try to take care of myself and my body, I try to create meaning by helping people live more significant lives (e.g., via this blog…) – and ever since being married and having kids, I stay home a lot.
I guess, as ever so often, it comes down to finding the right balance.
For several decades, developing self-esteem in children and adults has been the holy grail of fostering healthy attitudes towards the self. Yet, starting in the early 1990s, criticism arose, pointing towards the absence of positive consequences of having high self-esteem, and highlighting several negative consequences, such as dismissing negative feedback or taking less responsibility for harmful actions. In an influential review article from 2003 titled Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?, Roy Baumeister and colleagues conclude:
We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes.
In the same year, Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin introduced a different kind of healthy attitude towards the self – which may be especially helpful in times of suffering, or when facing adversity: Self-compassion, rooted in the ancient Buddhist traditions of mindfulness and compassion, and Western adaptations such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In the words of Neff:
[…] When faced with experiences of suffering or personal failure, self-compassion entails three basic components: (a) self-kindness — extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism, (b) common humanity — seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness — holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.
[…] Self-compassion may entail many of the psychological benefits that have been associated with self-esteem, but with fewer of its pitfalls. Self-compassion represents a positive emotional stance towards oneself, in that one extends feelings of kindness and caring toward oneself. It helps to motivate productive behavior and protect against the debilitating effects of self-judgment such as depression and anxiety. Self-compassion, however, is not based on the performance evaluations of self and others, or on congruence with ideal standards. In fact, self-compassion takes the entire self-evaluation process out of the picture […].
In the meantime, self-compassion has shown to be a valuable tool for personal development and fighting symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Long-form and short-form scales for measuring self-compassion have been developed, an effective training program has been devised, and a recent meta-analysis finds that fostering self-compassion effectively helps to alleviate several psychopathologies (please see links to research papers below. You can find out more about self-compassion (e.g., free exercises and training opportunities) via Kristin Neff´s homepage.
Exactly two years and one day after giving my first TEDx talk in Bergen/Norway, today I’ve been given the chance to speak at another amazing event: The first ever edition of TEDxEBS. Now, EBS stands for European Business School (in Oestrich-Winkel/Germany) and it’s actually the university where I completed my Ph.D. from 2005-2010. So, six years after defending my thesis on management accounting and performance management, I was excited to return today in order to speak about a slightly more inspiring topic in a more relaxed environment.
I’d like to thank the TEDxEBS team for their awesome work. They have created a beautiful event, perfectly organized, with a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
It typically takes a couple of weeks until the TEDx videos are edited and then approved by the TED organization. But as I’m eager to share my thoughts and feelings with you, below, you’ll find the script of today’s talk. Once the video is online it’ll be fun to watch what I’ve actually said on stage compared to what I had written down earlier on.
Enjoy – and please help me to spread the news…
What’s the most common sentence you hear at work? Most likely, it’s “How are you?” Each time you start an interaction, that’s the way to kick off the conversation, right? So, what do we reply when a colleague asks us: “How are you?” Typically, we´d say: “Thanks, everything’s fine.” And then we´d probably ask in return: “How are you?” And the other person will say “Great! Thanks for asking…” That’s what we do in business, that’s the flow. Here in Germany, it’s all the small talk you need. After that, you can get right to business.
Now, what if one of the two individuals in this “game of how are you” actually said something like: “I don´t feel good at all. You know, my child is really sick and I probably shouldn’t be here today.” Or, even more severe: “My father is likely going to die over the next days and…” Suddenly, there´d be this huge emotional elephant in the room, right?
And then, there´d be this awkward moment of prolonged silence. Finally, the other person would say: “Oh, that’s terrible. Is there anything I can do?” And the first person, noticing the awkwardness, would very likely reply: “No, no, it´s fine. But thanks for asking. Let´s go to work.” And then, they would go to work. Maybe they would talk about the budget for next year. Meanwhile, that elephant would make itself very comfortable in the room, making sure the whole meeting takes on a markedly uncomfortable vibe. Why is that the case?
Ever since Fredrick Taylor´s concept of “Scientific Management”, companies are supposed to be places informed by stern rationality. It´s all about numbers, calculations, and efficiency. Humans, with all of our emotional complexity, we´re oftentimes seen as a disturbing factor. Many of the most influential theories in economics actually dismiss human emotions altogether. Their homo oeconomicus is a selfish calculating machine.
And yet, each and every one of us knows that moment when the elephant steps into the room, right? Apart from positive feelings such as pride and joy, inevitably, we also experience emotions such as anger, fear, and sorrow while at work. There’s certainly a lot of fear in organizations. The truth is: Part of human life consists of suffering. And that’s why part of organizational life also consists of suffering. It´s a no-brainer.
That´s why the late Peter Frost, a management professor at the University of British Columbia, coined the following sentence:
There´s always pain in the room. Such a strong statement. Because it’s true. I mean, there’s pain in this room right now. 100 people. In the beginning, I asked “How are you?” – and you said you feel alright. But I´m sure there is suffering in this room right now. For some, it’ll be some physical pain, for some, it’ll be emotional pain, for whatever reason. There’s always pain in the room. That’s human. That’s life.
And basically, this means there´s always a lot of suffering in organizations. I work for a company of 120.000 people. That’s a lot of potential for suffering, each and every day. It’s not always about life and death, but it’s certainly always there. Where does this suffering in organizations come from?
Some of that suffering is caused outside of work, but people bring that into the office. There´s relationship problems, financial worries, sickness, there´s death – and taxes, for sure. We’re kind of expected to shake things off, to leave our negative emotions at the front door. Guess what: We can’t. We can put our sorrows on hold for a while, but we cannot get rid of them altogether. It’s impossible.
Additionally, work itself can be a source of suffering: Think about choleric bosses, harsh working hours, conflicts between departments, getting worn out in these power games, or the fear of being laid off. As leaders, we often talk about change. We talk about the future, and how to get there. What we tend to forget: Wherever there’s change, people lose something. When something new comes to life, something old has to die. Grief is, or at least, should be a natural companion of change.
Here’s a simple truth – yet one that is often overlooked: As leaders, we create suffering. We create suffering. It’s unavoidable. If we don’t create suffering, we’re probably not leading. Leading people sometimes means making decisions about things, budgets – and sometimes, making decisions about people. Who gets to work on that new cool project – and who doesn’t? Who gets to go on vacation for Christmas, who has stay in the office? Who gets promoted, and who will lose their job? Some people will suffer. You create suffering as a leader. That’s OK. But you have to be aware of that fact and you’ve got to take care of that.
So, what can we do when were confronted with the suffering of a person we work with? One option could be to downplay or outright ignore it. We sometimes advise other people to stay strong, or to get their shit together, right? But recent research from the Leadership Quarterly suggests that, especially as a leader, it’s about the worst thing you can do. In the long run, it will drive down engagement, motivation, and satisfaction of your people.
A different way to respond to suffering is: Compassion. Showing compassion. Now, that´s a word that somehow doesn’t seem to fit in the world of business. It seems too soft, too esoteric. In fact, the word compassion is most often associated with spiritual traditions, first and foremost with Buddhism. Now, what exactly does it mean to show compassion? How do we get there?
First, some good news: You don´t have to go to Tibet for several years to meditate in a cave. Actually, compassion is something we´re born with. Even small babies will spontaneously display compassion when confronted with the suffering of someone they care about.
At the heart of compassion there´s a very simple and beautiful idea: The wish that other individuals may be free from suffering. While people here in the West would probably think of their family and friends first, the goal of practicing Buddhists is to extend this wish to all sentient beings. That´s the Champions League of compassion, so to speak. For now, let´s say the gist of the matter is wholeheartedly wishing for the best for other people.
Now, here´s a crucial thing: Compassion is about taking action. It is more than just being empathetic. Compassion is about mitigating another person´s pain. Let´s suppose you see somebody hitting their thumb with a hammer. You could say something like “Oh, I know how that hurts, I´ve been there.” Technically speaking, you´re empathetic. You´re able to feel what´s going on with the other person. But then, if you don´t care, it´s not compassion.
In scientific terms, compassion consists of a three-step: 1) Noticing another person´s suffering; 2) feeling empathetic concern; and 3) taking some kind of action to mitigate that suffering. Or, as I like to call it: Realize. Relate. Relieve. Now, what is the concept of compassion in organizations?
In organizations, compassion can be displayed spontaneously, or it can be planned into the system. What does it take to be personally compassionate? Not much, actually. Taking some time to just listen to somebody, offering them undivided attention. Giving somebody a hug, or buying them a coffee. When you´re able to hold a space where others can show their full selves, where they can be vulnerable – that´s compassion. Especially as a leader, not doing or saying things or postponing certain actions can ask be a sign of compassion. You should try not make things worse, right?
On the organizational level, there´s a possibility for magnifying individual compassion. Think about offers for counseling. Think about monetary support or temporarily cutting working hours. Especially, with severe strokes of fate, having time to cope and sort things out is a crucial resource. When companies offer swift and non-bureaucratic support at this point, it´s a true sign of organizational compassion.
Another element of compassion in organizations is coordinating rituals. I´ve already spoken about how change always activates grief. When long-time employees retire, or worse, pass away, typically, we hold farewell rituals. But what about the pain an organization creates itself? When there are layoffs and restructuring, people will suffer. I´m talking about relationships that are torn apart, about people being stripped of their pride, or a part of their life´s meaning. This is not only burdening for those colleagues who have to go, but also for the ones who get to stay. Handling transitions such as these in a personal and appreciative fashion, not resorting to press releases and empty phrases, is a true sign of compassion.
So, what´s the “so what” of organizational compassion? What are the upsides? There is an excellent review article by Jane Dutton (and colleagues) from the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. She proposes compassion unfolds its positive effects on several layers of the organization: It is beneficial for the person on the receiving end, it’s beneficial for the one who displays compassion, it can be beneficial for potential bystanders – and potentially it creates ripple effects throughout the whole organizational system. Acts of compassion are a source of shared emotions, gratitude, and companionship. Additionally, while going through the motions, people engage in joint sense-making.
As a consequence, employees experience elevated levels of gratitude, pride, and meaning. Yes, compassion can be a powerful driver of meaning in organizations. Some studies propose there is a measurable impact on the bottom line. Think about less absenteeism, less burn-out, certainly less turnover intentions. On the positive side, think about heightened levels of trust, cooperation, and satisfaction. These seem like soft words, but they will show up in a company´s bottom line, eventually.
Before I start wrapping things up, I´d like to say something about what undermines compassion in organizations. At this point, I could talk about how certain values and norms suffocate and literally kill compassion, for example rigid hierarchical leadership, overly competitive standards, and a macho-style “boys don´t cry” culture. But for the sake of brevity, I´m going to talk about something else: About you!
I´m speaking here at a distinguished business school. Most, if not all of you, are going to be future business leaders. That´s great news, but therein lies a risk: Several studies, for example by Adam Galinsky (and colleagues) from Columbia Business School, propose that we tend to become less empathetic the more powerful we are. When we rise up the corporate ranks, we tend to lose – at least to some extent – our innate impulse to feel what others feel. When we rise in power, we typically care less about the suffering of others. At the same time, research by Jennifer Berdahl (and colleagues) from the University of British Columbia suggests leaders are less willing to express negative emotions. They tend to keep them to themselves. As a consequence, it´s very unlikely they´ll be at the receiving end of compassion – even if they might desperately need it. Accordingly, there´s a kind of compassion gap at the top of most org charts.
Now, keep in mind: As a leader, especially when you´re part of a top management team, you serve as a role model, whether you like it or not. People are going to look up to you, you´ll set the tone of the organization. As a consequence, there seems to be kind of vicious circle. Leaders tend to become less compassionate as they rise in power, and at the same time they shape the norms of the organization. Taking this into account, it seems that hierarchical systems have an inclination to become less compassionate over time – unless the leaders purposefully counteract this emotional decline.
And so, it starts with you! Most of you here in this room are just about to embark on your professional journey. Some of you will join existing corporations and you will eventually rise up the ranks. Some of you will join a non-for-profit or build a career in public service. A lot of you will hopefully build your own companies or take on responsibility in the family business. It’s all good. You can all find happiness.
Just remember: You’re not a different human being when you´re doing business. You take on a role and a responsibility – but there is no other version of yourself that you can send off to work. It’s always you and it’s always all of you. As a leader, you will suffer, and even more so, you will be the cause of suffering. You´ve got to take care of that.
So, when you go work: Dare to bring your whole self to work. When you lead people: Dare to encourage them to bring their whole selves to work. When you build a company: Dare to grow an organization where people can be their best, their whole selves. Dare to be a compassionate leader. Dare to lead from he heart. Thank you!
I wholeheartedly would like to thank the following researchers for being a source of inspiration, knowledge, and wisdom – even though most of them do not appear directly in the talk or in the charts, and even though some of them don’t even know about their contribution:
Wayne Baker, Sigal Barsade, Jennifer Berdahl, Kim Cameron, David Cooperrider, Edward Deci, Jane Dutton, Alex Edmans, Barbara Fredrickson, Peter Frost, Adam Galinsky, Adam Grant, Dacher Keltner, Laura Little, Kristin Neff, James Pawelski, Christopher Peterson, Robert Quinn, Richard Ryan, Esa Saarinen, Martin Seligman, Emma Seppälä, Kennon Sheldon, Tanja Singer, Michael Steger, Chris White, Monica Worline, and Amy Wrzesniewski.
A special thank you goes out to Jane Dutton and Robert Quinn from University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. Somehow, they have helped me to understand that it’s OK to put my ass up on that stage with this “esoteric” topic.
Last not least, I’d like to thank my two beautiful children – who hopefully will grow up to work in a (business) world that’s as close as possible to the one I bring to life in my words.
This one´s hot of the press, written by Tim Lomas.
The article in the Review of General Psychology proposes the creation of “positive art” as a field encompassing theory and research concerning the well-being value of art. It identifies 5 main positive outcomes that are consistently found in the literature across all these forms:
The article aims to encourage a greater focus on the arts in fields such as positive psychology, enabling science to more fully understand and appreciate the positive power of the arts.
Lomas, T. (2016). Positive art: Artistic expression and appreciation as an exemplary vehicle for flourishing. Review of General Psychology, 20(2), 171-182.
Now, I´m not much of an art lover, but even I have experienced and written about the power of taking a “deep-dive” into a painting: Using Art to Cultivate Mindfulness – or: A pleasant Surprise with Rousseau´s Unpleasant Surprise.
And I certainly know about the positive power of music, no matter what kind: Finding Happiness in angry Music.
Share and enjoy!
This fabulous infographic on the scientific benefits of compassion was originally created by Emma Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and author of The Happiness Track. For more of her awesome work, please visit her homepage.